This weekend, eBay’s CEO John Donahoe shared the stage with Alibaba’s maverick founder Jack Ma at his annual Alifest conference in Hangzhou, China. Gady Epstein, Forbes Beijing bureau chief, has an intriguing blog about how Mr. Donahoe wished a happy birthday to Jack Ma who not only defeated eBay in China, but also “encroaches on eBay’s home turf.” Since Epstein referenced my recounting of the eBay-Alibaba battle, I thought it might serve readers well to provide an excerpt here from my book The Chinese Dream:
In 2004, eBay had just entered China and was planning to dominate the China market. Alibaba was a local Chinese company that helped small- and medium-sized enterprises conducting business online. Most people in the West had barely heard about it.
When eBay entered the China market, Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba, was alarmed that “someday, eBay would come in our direction.” He knew too well that there was no clear distinction between small businesses and individual consumers in China. As a defensive strategy, Ma decided to launch a competing consumer-to-consumer (C2C) auction site, not to make money, but to fend off eBay from taking away Alibaba’s customers.
A new Web site named Taobao—meaning “digging for treasure”—was launched free of charge for individuals buying and selling virtually any consumer goods, from cosmetics to electronic parts.
In 2004, I visited Alibaba at its headquarters in Hangzhou. It is located on a campus of three ten-story buildings in the northeastern part of Hangzhou, about a ten-minute taxi drive from West Lake. In the lobby, a flat panel TV was streaming video clips of Jack Ma speaking at various public events where his admirers, most of them in their twenties, were cheering him like a rock star. While visiting Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, I felt the same “insanely great” energy of entrepreneurship as I felt in Silicon Valley. When I asked a senior manager at Alibaba whether the company was worried that it would be bought by eBay, I was blown away by the answer: “We will buy eBay!”
EBay, on the other hand, began its most aggressive campaigns to dominate the market and thwart competitors. Soon after Taobao was launched, eBay signed exclusive advertising rights with major portals Sina, Sohu, and Netease with the intention of blocking advertisements from Taobao. In addition, eBay injected another $100 million to build its China operation, now renamed “eBay EachNet,” and was spreading its ads on buses, subway platforms, and everywhere else.
Ma fought back cleverly. Knowing that most small business people would rather watch TV than log on to the Internet, Ma secured advertisements for Taobao on major TV channels. In 2004, one could easily feel the heat of fierce competition between eBay EachNet and Taobao. When I was taking a taxi in Shanghai, I noticed the ads of eBay EachNet on the back of the driver’s seat; when I checked into my hotel, I heard the ads for Taobao popping up on TV almost every half hour. Since its name means “digging for treasure” in Chinese, it attracted a lot of attention by a smart play on words. While most people in the West had never heard of Taobao, its name was heard loud and strong in China.
Nevertheless, most industry observers were suspicious about Taobao’s future, particularly its sustainability. Unlike eBay EachNet, which charged its sellers for listing and transaction fees, Taobao was free to use. Neither Ma nor any members from the management team gave a definite timeline as to how long this “free period” was going to last. “Free is not a business model,” the doubters said. Some thought Ma was crazy and nicknamed him “Crazy Ma.”
No doubt Crazy Ma was changing the game. Taobao got a quick start with its free listings and continued to gain momentum as more and more users switched from eBay EachNet to Taobao. According to a Morgan Stanley report, Taobao was more customer focused and user friendly than eBay EachNet. With most users not sophisticated about auctions, the majority of Taobao’s listings were for sales. Only 10 percent of its listings were for auctions, while eBay EachNet had about 40 percent of its listings for auctions. Taobao had also better terms for its customers: it offered longer listing periods (fourteen days) and let customers extend for one more period automatically. EBay EachNet did not have this flexibility.
Taobao’s listings appeared to be more customer-centric while eBay EachNet’s listings more product-centric. For example, Taobao’s listings were organized into several categories, such as “Men,” “Women,” and so on, while eBay EachNet stuck to its global platform, grouping users into “Buyers” and “Sellers.” At that time, China had about three hundred million cell phone users versus ninety million Internet users. Taobao offered instant messaging and voice mail to mobile phones for buyers and sellers because Chinese users were cell-phone savvy rather than computer savvy.
It was clear that Taobao had an upper hand against its global counterpart because it really understood Chinese customers. As a result, Taobao had higher customer satisfaction than eBay EachNet. According to iResearch, a Beijing-based research firm, the user satisfaction level was 77 percent for Taobao versus 62 percent for eBay EachNet. The experience of competing with eBay gave Ma tremendous confidence. He was determined to win: “eBay may be a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose—but if we fight in the river, we win.”
On December 20, 2006, Meg Whitman, eBay’s then CEO, flew to Shanghai to take part in a press conference to announce a new joint venture with Beijing-based Internet portal Tom Online, which provides wireless value-added multimedia services. It was, in reality, a formal announcement of eBay’s withdrawal from the online auction market in China. EBay shut down its China site, eBay EachNet, and took a back seat to a company with only $173 million in revenue and no experience in the online auction business.
Jack Ma represents a new generation of savvy Chinese competitors whom should not be underestimated. They study their markets and bring to bear their local knowledge. They learn from their competition and from their own mistakes as they move up the competitive landscape.
The case of Alibaba provides an invaluable lesson for multinationals that want to succeed in China market:
First, eBay failed to recognize that the Chinese market and the business environment are very different from that of the West. EBay sent a German manager to lead the China operation and brought in a chief technology officer from the United States. Neither one spoke Chinese or understood the local market. It was eBay’s biggest mistake. Second, because the top management team didn’t understand the local market, they spent a lot of money doing the wrong things, such as advertising on the Internet in a country where small businesses didn’t use the Internet. The fact that eBay had a strong brand in the United States didn’t mean it would be a strong brand in China. Third, rather than adapt products and services to local customers, eBay stuck to its “global platform,” which again did not fit local customers’ tastes and preferences.